White Tombs: Excerpt



Julio Pérez sat in a swivel chair behind the mahogany desk in the study of his house on St. Paul’s West Side. His eyes were closed and his left cheek was resting on the desktop. Were it not for the bullet hole in his head, one could have assumed that he had merely fallen asleep.   

“What time did the call come in?” Detective John Santana asked.

He and his partner, Detective Rick Anderson, were talking with the first officer on the crime scene. The nameplate above her breast pocket identified her as Larkin.

“Just after five this afternoon,” she said. Her uniform was pressed and starched and looked like it had just come out of a box.

“Who called it in?”

“Mrs. Pérez. She met me when I arrived. Told me she left her husband alone to do some shopping.  When she returned, she found him like this.” Larkin gestured toward Pérez’s body without looking directly at it. “I called dispatch immediately.”

“Shit,” Anderson said. “The news media monitor police radio frequencies.  No wonder they’re streaming around this place like squad cars at a Krispy Kreme grand opening.”

Larkin’s face colored with embarrassment. “Sorry. I’ll remember it next time.”

“I know you will,” Santana said. “Did Mrs. Pérez say anything else?”

“Only that she couldn’t believe someone would do this to her husband.”

Santana could hear sobs coming from another room. The warm, stuffy air in the house smelled like garlic, cumin, oregano and chili peppers.

Anderson said, “Anyone with Mrs. Pérez now?”

“Her daughter.”

“Okay, Larkin.  Keep your hands in your pockets so you don’t touch anything on the way out.  And be careful where you step.”

Despite Anderson’s warning, Santana knew it was impossible for anyone to enter a crime scene without changing it in some way. It was the reason he used gloves at a crime scene only if blood was present and AIDS was a concern, or if he needed to touch something. Gloves led to carelessness, which could destroy fingerprints.

“I don’t see a gun,” Anderson said. “But there’s a shell casing on the floor near the desk.”

He squatted near the shell casing. “Head stamp reads REM. Looks like the bullet came from a twenty-two caliber, Remington. Makes me wonder though.”

“Why leave the shell casing?” 

Anderson stood up. “Exactly. It can be traced to the gun.”

Santana drew a rough sketch of the crime scene in his notebook showing the location of Pérez’s body and the shell casing. Next to the drawing of the shell casing he wrote a question mark. Then he examined the gunshot wound in Julio Pérez’s head. 

Powder grains expelled from the muzzle of a gun had caused tattooing on one side of the angled wound indicating that it wasn’t a contact shot. The reddish-brown color showed that Pérez was alive when he was shot. The tattooing would have been gray or yellow in appearance had he been dead beforehand.

Santana looked at Pérez’s arms and legs without moving them, then at the hands and fingers. He detected no defensive wounds and nothing was visible under Pérez’s fingernails. He saw no folds or rolls in the clothing that would suggest the body had been moved.

“No sign of a struggle, Rick. No fear in Pérez’s face.”

“I figure he knew the shooter,” Anderson said, reading Santana’s thoughts.  “Maybe he was expecting company.” 

It was like that with a partner after awhile, at least a good partner. Santana imagined it was like being married for a long time. 

 “They come into the study together,” Anderson said. “The shooter is behind him.  Pérez sits down at his desk and gets capped in the head.”

Santana noted that the powder tattooing was darker and denser behind the right ear, indicating the muzzle was near the ear when the gun was fired.

“I’ll get some uniforms to help me canvas the neighborhood,” Anderson said.  “Find out if anyone saw or heard anything.”

“Make sure you run the names of all the neighbors, Rick. See if anyone has a criminal record.”

“Sorry about giving you the hard part, John, but you’re better at dealing with the family.”

Talking to relatives and friends of a murder victim was often the most unpleasant and difficult part of the job. But Santana knew at some point in the investigation he could tell those same relatives and friends that he had caught the perp who had caused them so much pain. It might be a small consolation for the victim’s family, but he derived great satisfaction from knowing it was the murderer’s turn to suffer. 

He concentrated on the floor and the ground around the body next, looking for any stains or marks. He took a small flashlight out of his pocket and focused the light toward the ground at an oblique angle, checking for footprints or drag marks in the thin layer of dust on the oak floor. Then he let the beam play across the walls and ceiling as he searched for blood spatter.  

When he was satisfied there was nothing of evidentiary value, he put away the flashlight, slipped on a pair of latex gloves and opened the folding door on a large closet that covered one wall.  Inside it he found Pérez’s summer clothes, a pair of leather sandals and a pair of Reebok walking shoes. The clothes smelled musty after months on hangers and yielded no clues. Mahogany bookcases lined a second wall to his right.  The authors were mostly Latino writers. Gabriel García Márquez, Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda, one of Santana’s favorites. 

Framed photographs of Pérez with his wife and daughter hung on the wall behind the desk. Organized in clusters according to periods of time, they represented a visual record of a family’s history. The daughter had black hair and looked to be in her early to mid twenties when the most recent photographs were taken. She had piercing ebony eyes and reminded Santana of the Mexican actress, Salma Hayek. Mrs. Pérez appeared to be in her late forties. Her dark hair had begun to gray, and she had put on a few pounds over the years. But she still retained the high cheekbones and luminous dark eyes that were clearly evident in the earlier snapshots of her. Santana wondered how her husband’s death would change the peace and contentment he saw in her face.

Many of the photos of Julio Pérez were taken with local celebrities and politicians.  In one he was receiving an award at a Chamber of Commerce dinner.  In another he was throwing out the first pitch at a St. Paul Saint’s game. Pérez had been a slender, good-looking man with silver hair, a neatly trimmed silver mustache and eyes the color of dark coffee. His chestnut skin looked firm and his complexion healthy.

A framed copy of El Día, one of the monthly Hispanic newspapers in St. Paul, hung next to the family pictures. A former mayor had signed it. Santana remembered reading the newspaper when he first came to Minnesota. El Día became his main source of information and events, his lifeline to the Hispanic community. Since he spoke and read very little English at the time and preferred solitude to groups, he would often reread the same stories while he anxiously waited for the next issue to appear in the newspaper racks along Grand Avenue.

He moved on to the desk. A humidor filled with cigars sat on one side. A half-smoked cigar rested on the edge of a ceramic ashtray beside a yellow pad of post-it notes and a Rolodex open to the card of a well-known local attorney, Rafael Mendoza. Santana wondered why Pérez had called a lawyer and if the phone call was related in any way to his murder.

He walked into the master bedroom off the study. A thin layer of frost filmed the lower panes of the windows that looked out on the lighted park behind the house. The January sun already lay far below the horizon and a starless darkness covered the landscape. It was nearly mid-winter, yet the hard ground was still brown and free of snow, making it difficult to find any impression evidence.

A small statue of the Virgin Mary stood on the nightstand beside the neatly made double bed. A large crucifix hung on the wall. On the wall opposite the windows was a Holy Card called Estampa de la Santísima Trinidad, the trinity, and one called Estampa de Jesus

Santana took off his latex gloves and stuffed them in his coat pockets. Then he went into the living room where Mrs. Pérez and her daughter were huddled together on a tweed couch. He sat down in a matching chair across from them.

Serapes draped the backs of the couch and chair. Paintings of Native Americans on horseback hung on the walls. A picture window at one end of the room looked out onto the front porch.  A statue of the Virgin de Guadalupe stood on an end table beside a burning candle that gave off an aroma of cinnamon.      

“I know this is a difficult time for you both,” Santana said. “But I need to ask you a few questions.”

Por que alguien querria matar a mi esposo,” Mrs. Pérez said, wiping her red, swollen eyes with a Kleenex.

Mamíta,” her daughter said, embarrassment evident in her voice. “Speak English, please.”

“Forgive me, Señor,” Mrs. Pérez said with a heavy accent. “When I am upset, I sometimes forget my English. I was asking why someone would kill my husband.” 

The words brought tears to her eyes again. She rubbed them with the palms of her hands like she had just awakened from a nightmare and was uncertain if what she had dreamt was actually true.

“It’s okay,” Santana said. “Yo entiendo bien el Español, Señora Pérez.” 

The two women looked at Santana as though he had just beamed down from the starship Enterprise.

“You are from Mexico?” the daughter said.

“Colombia.  Me llamo, John Santana.”

“You have only a slight accent, Señor.

“It wasn’t always that way.”

Santana could tell by the way the daughter’s body relaxed that she saw him differently, now that she knew he was not a guero; he was not the enemy.

“I am Gabriela,” she said with very little accent as well. “This is my mother, Sandra.”

Mucho gusto.”

Te pareces a mi sobrino,” Sandra Pérez said. She put a hand momentarily on her mouth to prevent the words from coming out. “I’m so sorry, Detective Santana. But you do look like my nephew. It is the dark, wavy hair and blue eyes.  And you are both handsome young men.”

Muchas gracias, Señora.”

“You must be over six feet.”

“Six feet one inch.”

She confirmed the fact with a nod and cast her eyes downward for a moment, as though she were imagining a happier time, perhaps with her nephew.

Santana said, “You were home all day, Señora, except for the two hours when you went shopping?”


“When was the last time you spoke to your husband?”

“When I left the house,” she said.  “He was working in his study.”

“Do you recall what time you left?”

“It was just after three o’clock.” 

“Was your husband planning on going out later?”

“Why?” Gabriela asked.

“Your father was wearing a white shirt and tie.”

“Julio was always a good dresser,” Sandra Pérez said. “It did not matter whether it was a workday or whether we were going out or staying in. He was just that way.” She dabbed her eyes and with the Kleenex and sighed deeply.

Santana gave her a smile to reassure her that he understood. “Was your husband expecting anyone? A visitor, perhaps?”

“No.  I do not think so.”

“And you, Gabriela? When was the last time you saw your father?”

“Yesterday evening. I came over for dinner. I like to do that at least once a week.”

Santana watched both of them carefully, their mannerisms, how they reacted to his questions. He had no reason to suspect them of committing the murder, but it would be unwise to rule either one of them out this early in the investigation.

“Your husband owned El Día, Señora.”

“It was his life.”

“Do you both work there as well?”

“No. Gabriela worked there before she went to college.”

“And sometimes in the summer when I was home from school,” Gabriela said. 

“You’re not in the newspaper business, then.”

“I manage Casa Blanca, a restaurant in St. Paul.”

Santana was familiar with the movie but not the restaurant. “Were you working when you got the call about your father?”

“Yes,” she said hesitantly, as if he had implied she wasn’t.

“Do either of you know a man named Rafael Mendoza?”

Both women shook their heads.

“Why?” Gabriela asked.

“Your father’s Rolodex was open to Mendoza’s name and number.”

“My father never spoke of him,” she said with a slight edge in her voice. “I do not know why he would call him.”

Santana wondered if Gabriela Pérez had a reason for reacting angrily when Mendoza’s name was mentioned or if she was just edgy by nature. Either way, he knew he would have to tread softly if he wanted her cooperation. He turned his attention to Sandra Pérez. 

“Did your husband have any enemies, Señora? Perhaps someone who worked for him at the newspaper?”

She shook her head vigorously. “Julio was a friend to many in this community.”

“Did your husband own a gun?”


“Forgive me for asking, Señora, but were you and your husband having any marital difficulties?”

“Difficulties?  I do not understand?”

“My parents were very happy,” Gabriela said. Her dark eyes burned right through Santana.

Asking personal questions, particularly to a grieving widow, always bothered him. Still, most murders weren’t random acts of violence, but were committed by someone the victim knew. Santana considered explaining this fact to Gabriela Pérez before he concluded that she was not the least bit interested in hearing his reasoning behind the question.

“When you feel up to it, Señora,” he said, “I would like you to look carefully around your house to see if anything has been taken.”

“You suspect robbery as a motive?” Gabriela said.

“We can’t rule it out.  Señora, we’ll need to see your financial statements, bank accounts, credit cards.”

“I do not know about these things,” she said with a small shrug.

“I can help,” Gabriela said.

“Would you mind if I borrowed a photograph of your husband, Señora? I might need it during the course of the investigation.”

“Gabriela will get one from the albums.”

Gabriela put her arms around her mother and stroked the back of her head, as if she were consoling a child.

Santana took a card out of a pocket and placed it on the coffee table.  “There’s a name and number of a victim advocate, the medical examiner’s number, and the Ramsey County attorney’s number on this card. Once we’re finished here, your husband’s body will be taken to the medical examiner’s office at Regions’ Hospital where an autopsy will be performed.”      

He stood and closed his notebook. Behind him he heard the front door opening and closing and the sound of footsteps in the hallway. The evidence techs and ME had arrived.

“If you think of anything else or have any questions, please call me.” He gave them both a business card with his direct number at the station. “Is there someplace your mother could stay tonight?”

Gabriela looked at the card in her hand and then at Santana. “She will stay with me.”

“That’s a good idea.”

 He started to leave when Gabriela said, “My mother is right, Detective. No one who knew my father would want to kill him.” 

Her dark eyes had softened. An indication, perhaps, that she realized she would never see her father again. 

“I’m very sorry for your loss,” he said. 

Por favor,” Sandra Pérez said with trembling lips. She pulled away from her daughter and stifled a sob. “Encuentre al asesino de mi esposo.”

The desperation in her voice imploring him to find the person who murdered her husband triggered the sudden rush of adrenaline Santana always felt when he began a homicide investigation. He had no idea yet who had murdered Sandra Pérez’s husband. But he had no problem promising her he would find out who did it.

Go to TOPSi, se lo prometo, Señora,” he said and returned to the study.